Phoenix, AZ: Cultural Connections

Group of locals spreading out colored blankets in an open town space

Photo by Josh Loeser

How can temporary public art projects help to change perceptions about a city’s vacant lots and bolster a developing cultural district?

When the 2008 financial crisis hit Phoenix, Arizona, it left a glut of foreclosed properties throughout the metropolitan region, including the downtown area. Knowing vacant lots could trigger a host of socioeconomic challenges, the city moved to repurpose them as sites for temporary installations – a project they called Cultural Connections. By locating a series of installations within the developing cultural district Roosevelt Row and adjacent to a new light rail line in downtown Phoenix, the temporary pieces activated urban spaces with art objects and events. The larger program would also help engage the local community in planning for and implementation of many of the pieces, with a focus on artists whose work directly addressed local socioeconomic conditions.


The capital of Arizona, Phoenix is a sprawling city of nearly 1.5 million people and nearly 5 million in its metropolitan region. Its downtown area is a mix of buildings and programs—a central business district, combined with single-family detached homes, museums and government buildings. More recently it has become a magnet for art-related activities, aided by improved public transportation, including a light rail system that crosses Roosevelt Row in the heart of downtown, connecting it to the entire metropolitan region. Roosevelt Row is a cultural district that includes three distinctive historic neighborhoods on the north edge of the urban core: Roosevelt, Evans-Churchill, and Garfield. The Arizona Opera, Ballet Arizona, and the Black Theatre Troupe have recently purchased buildings along the light rail, bolstering its emerging identity as a new cultural spine, linking new cultural organizations and sites with established ones like the Phoenix Art Museum, Heard Museum, and Burton Barr Central Library.


2008 was a momentous year for Phoenix. On the one hand, it saw the completion of an ambitious light rail transportation network—Metro Light Rail—that provided the area with unprecedented connectivity with the rest of the city. On the other, the year brought the mortgage crisis, afflicting Phoenix and the state with a rising tide of foreclosures. Arizona ranked among the top three states in the number of foreclosed properties from 2008 through 2010. This crisis left Phoenix and the Roosevelt Row district with many vacant and underutilized properties. These vacant sites disrupted the neighborhood’s sense of community, increased the potential for crime, and exacerbated the longstanding issue of homelessness.


The growing number of vacant and underutilized lots created an inaccurate physical impression of a neighborhood in decline and contributed to an array of other socioeconomic challenges: decreasing property values, attracting illegal littering (sometimes with hazardous wastes), and diminishing the numbers of pedestrians on the street. Because of these challenges, the city was in need of programs and activities that would keep these spaces constructively occupied and that would keep the downtown area and Roosevelt Row district on a growth trajectory. The City’s temporary art program, known as Artists Initiative, had historically commissioned artists to create temporary projects in the public realm in parks and at libraries, but these installations were not often connected to street pedestrian activity or public transportation.



Taking these challenges into account, Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture (POAC) proposed a district arts initiative it would call Cultural Connections, based on the successful Roosevelt Row program A.R.T.S. (Adaptive Re-Use of Temporary Space) and Mayor Greg Stanton’s Phoenix ReNew’s Program, which helps to reactivate empty lots in the downtown core. The vision was to commission temporary public art installations along a portion of light rail corridor with the Roosevelt Row district to animate vacant spaces, bolster the developing cultural district, and enhance the broader public experience of the downtown area. These art projects would not only provide aesthetic additions to the urban landscape, but also confront issues of food and housing. Though the office had a focus on this particular area of Phoenix, the vision went beyond any single district. The broad approach was also a way to highlight connectivity between different arts organizations along the two-mile light rail corridor and to draw attention to the pedestrian links between station stops and art venues.


Taking the project lead was POAC, an office established in 1985 by the Phoenix City Council to advance the growth and development of the city’s arts and cultural community. POAC collaborated with the Phoenix Arts and Culture Commission, a group of citizen volunteers appointed by the mayor that works to advise and approve the city’s public art programs. To make sure the project was tightly connected with the neighborhood, the POAC partnered with Roosevelt Row CDC, a non- profit community development corporation with a focus on the Roosevelt corridor in downtown Phoenix. Because of its commitment to the neighborhood and its organizational capacity, the Arizona State University Art Museum also came on board to assist with artist recruitment and planning workshops. It had specific experience creating an international artist residency that brought programming from the Tempe campus into the downtown area. This move connected them to the pedestrian activity along Roosevelt Street, where Roosevelt Row CDC hosts performances and art events on the First and Third Friday of each month.


POAC and its partners, Roosevelt Row and the ASU Art Museum, developed several different initiatives to appeal to a wide audience. Feast on the Street, which was developed by the ASU Art Museum, transformed a half mile stretch of First Street through downtown and Roosevelt Row into a large, public outdoor eating and gathering area for a day. Ground Cover involved an array of 300 blankets assembled on an empty lot into a floral mosaic. The vast mosaic of blankets was displayed for a day, then disassembled and redistributed to homeless people. These projects came from a combination of a call-for-artists and curatorial efforts that reached local, regional, and national audiences. Together with the selected artists, organizers worked with neighborhood groups and community advisors to determine the best locations. Clear and concise communication was paramount with the number of organizations and individuals working on the project. As Rothman explains, “The logistics of time, resource, and outreach management required all parties to be on the same page in order to deliver clear information to the public.” Scheduling and programming were synced with other outside project events, including the Phoenix Festival for the Arts, the downtown Farmer’s Market, and the Mayor’s Initiative on empty lots.


In the end, the Cultural Connections project reached its goal of transforming vacant spaces into sites of actively engaged artworks. It also increased the number of Phoenix artists with commissions, increased pedestrian traffic in the downtown area, brokered new community partnerships, and instigated conversations about art and public space in the media. As Rothman said, the program brought “people to the city for surprising art- related moments.” As a measure of its success, the initiative picked up many mentions in the press and organizers were pleased the program reached new audiences. “When you have retirees from the outer edges of the city hanging with hipsters at a gallery, something amazing has shifted,” says Rothman. Many of the social objectives were also met; the art projects served as a platform for conversations about providing food and shelter to local populations that may not have had access to either, creating awareness for sustainable food culture in the desert.



Though the relationship between art and social services can be hard to define, POAC was impressed with how directly many of the projects addressed the area’s socioeconomic challenges. The large-scale installation Ground Cover, for example, provided 300 blankets to the homeless community. The project also furthered a conversation about land use and the value of building parks and housing in the downtown area. Project logistics held surprises as well. One of the unexpected challenges cited by organizers was the degree to which coordinating projects across multiple partners created enormous complexities. During the project development period, for example, project managers needed to create a master calendar of events that could be referenced by multiple cultural organizations in order to leverage audiences and avoid conflicts in event scheduling. Yet, they all report it was well worth the effort because of the programmatic benefits that it brought. Seeing the project success also helped to reinforce in everyone’s mind the importance of this type of work.


The Ground Cover Public Art Project
Video of Artist Ann Morton discussing Ground Cover

Roosevelt Row: Artists’ District Creative Placemaking in Downtown Phoenix
Resource Document

Roosevelt Row
Online home of organization

Many local organizations can provide support along the way. As project manager Rebecca Rothman advises, “Make sure that you have partnerships in place (beyond your project partners) as these folks can help you with in-kind donations, land leases, parking, production help, and more.”